The Return of Race
March 15, 2005
For years I have heard people declare that there is "no such thing as race" and been uncomfortable with that bold declaration. While the intentions are pure — by removing race, one ostensibly removes the reasons for discrimination — and science has by and large agreed, I've always asked myself: "if there is no such thing as race, how come I can tell with 99% certainty what continent, and often what region, almost anyone's ancestors come from?" In the op-ed A Family Tree in Every Gene, evolutionary biologist Armand Marie Leroi takes on this notion by demonstrating the biological evidence for race and the modern medical and sociological implications thereof.
But if many — a few hundred — variable genes are considered simultaneously, then it is very easy to do so [see races]. Indeed, a 2002 study by scientists at the University of Southern California and Stanford showed that if a sample of people from around the world are sorted by computer into five groups on the basis of genetic similarity, the groups that emerge are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia — more or less the major races of traditional anthropology.
There have long been biological indications of race — how else does one explain the prevalence of Tay-Sachs disease in Africans? And biologists have been quite comfortable in recognizing race (though they might call it by other words) in animal populations that are disparate enough to have recognizable differences but not enough to establish separate species .
Morphological differences tied to geographic ancestry — race — seem to be undeniable. It is what we do with this knowledge that defines our moral character. Saying that one is North/Western European versus Southern European changes nothing — is in fact no different to me than saying "she has a New York accent and his speech patterns are clearly based in Texas."
Leroi goes on to say that "[r]ace is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences." He also details how medical advances could be made by understanding the components of race (particularly through looking at "mixed-race" individuals) and race-related diseases, and makes a strong case for protecting individual groups of people in order to preserve racial & cultural diversity.